Kirsten Christensen

title.none: Garber, Feminine Figurae (Kirsten Christensen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0508.013 05.08.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kirsten Christensen, Univ. of Notre Dame,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Garber, Rebecca L.R. Feminine Figurae: Representations of Gender in Religious Texts by Medieval German Women Writers 1100-1375. Series: Medieval History and Culture, vol. 10. London: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xvi, 295. $85.00 0-415-93953-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.08.13

Garber, Rebecca L.R. Feminine Figurae: Representations of Gender in Religious Texts by Medieval German Women Writers 1100-1375. Series: Medieval History and Culture, vol. 10. London: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xvi, 295. $85.00 0-415-93953-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Kirsten Christensen
Univ. of Notre Dame

Rebecca Garber's interesting study might more accurately be subtitled "Representations of Feminine Exemplarity..." than "Representations of Gender," for she focuses not on gender in a general way, but specifically and convincingly on the "multiplicity of exemplary possibilities" these varied texts presented for medieval religious women. Garber's sources are both Latin and vernacular texts that she selected for their representations of three genres of religious literatures that are, for the most part, specific to women: the vision cycle, the sister-book, and personal revelation. As she outlines in her introduction, the theme of female exemplarity stands out in greater relief because she examines it across these various genres. Her specific objects of study are the creation visions and Marian lyrics of Hildegard of Bingen, the fourteenth-century Dominican sister-books, and the personal revelations of the Dominicans Margaret Ebner and Adelheid Langmann. Garber's analysis of her sources is informed by the überlieferungsgeschichtliche Methode that seeks not the one "authentic" manuscript, but rather explores the relationships between manuscripts, although she does not describe and rarely discusses the manuscripts themselves. Still, her insightful and nuanced close readings reveal great familiarity with the sources.

Garber begins her journey through the genres by reading the text and images of the creation visions from Hildegard's Scivias, as well as images of Mary and Eve in Hildegard's Marian lyrics. In particular, Garber argues that Hildegard places guilt for the fall on the devil, which frees her to praise Eve as first mother, rather than first sinner. This also allows Hildegard to place Eve in a hierarchical, rather than oppositional relationship with Mary and thus to see them both as contributors to human salvation. Although Garber admits that Hildegard does not uniformly place Eve in this "recuperated" light, she nevertheless shows that Hildegard's emphasis away from Eve's guilt offered medieval women an important new model, since it destabilized the otherwise persistent and destructive binary of women as either only sinner or virgin. Although Eve and Mary are historical figures, Garber shows that Hildegard's feminine figurae are symbolic and allegorical, offered as idealized virtues for medieval women to incorporate into their own religious lives.

It is worth noting that the Latin texts by the erudite, powerful and much-studied Hildegard linger as a somewhat unexpected, even curious choice for comparison to the mostly vernacular texts by and about Dominicans written over 200 years later. Hildegard's texts are also the only representations of the genre of "vision cycle" Garber offers, whereas there are many representations of the sister-book, and she presents two fascinating and very different examples of personal revelation. The discussion of how the vision genre presents the exemplary feminine might well have been strengthened by examples of vision cycles by other women. Nonetheless, Garber's fresh analyses of her selections from Hildegard are their own justification for their inclusion in the study. And indeed, the very difference of Hildegard's texts, both chronologically and generically, from the fourteenth-century texts, serves Garber's goal of representing the variety of exemplary models available to medieval religious women.

Garber's discussion of female exemplarity in the sister-books is a deep and careful look at these remarkable texts; it is also a very good read. Her analysis focuses on the vitae of nuns who held office, since all of the sister-books contain such stories, thus allowing comparison among convents, not to mention providing an interesting look at women's authority. In this section Garber highlights an intriguing paradox of the Nonnenbucher-that although the perfected, idealized communities they portray surely did not exist in reality, at least not at any one point in time, they nonetheless present an image of convent life that would have been both familiar and imitable to later medieval women, through the sheer variety of models of piety they contain. Garber also points out the subtle contribution to the ideal made by the less than exemplary women in the convents-those who doubted the mystical gifts of the protagonists or otherwise detracted from the convent's spirituality. Although these sisters appear in the vitae only as "a sketchy background" of impiety, their mere existence adds to the richness and genuineness of these constructed narratives.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this section on the sister-books is Garber's discussion of the various roles and jobs women held in the convents, from cook to porter. She argues that the melding of the active with the contemplative life is uniquely visible in the roles of these women whose physical labors became spiritual service. In light of this variety of women's roles and ranks, Garber makes a convincing and quite moving argument that these texts be given greater attention, since they can profoundly deepen our knowledge of medieval women's lives more generally.

A clear discussion of the manuscripts of the various sister-books might have been useful at the outset of this chapter. Even if available in other studies, a summary of details such as how many copies exist, when they were copied and by whom, if known, as well as a listing of which manuscripts are in Latin and which in German, might have enriched the bigger picture of the sister-book genre for Garber's purposes. Some of these details can be gleaned from the bibliography, but a narrative summary could also have provided useful context for Garber's excellent analysis.

Texts by Margaret Ebner and Adelheid Langmann represent the final genre of personal revelation. Garber explains that this genre differs markedly from the other two in that it tells the story of progress of a single woman model, in contrast to the presentation of models (e.g. Mary and the protagonists of the sister-books) who are "always already perfected." Garber uses last and first names, respectively, as a simple but effective device for distinguishing between Ebner and Langmann as authors who construct the narrative, and Margaret and Adelheid as protagonists who live the narrative. These texts highlight both the mystic-protagonists' own progression toward exemplarity and their religious communities' progression toward acceptance of them as models. This acceptance from the community is not immediate, since the exceptional and often odd spiritual gifts of these women make them suspect before they can be acknowledged as exemplars. Extreme and constant illness marks Margaret Ebner's spiritual life, while Adelheid Langmann's path is filled with repeated visions that lead to unio mystica with her divine bridegroom. Garber situates both women within the traditions that influenced them and made them exceptional, such as the marked and highly unusual asensuality of Langmann's nuptial mysticism. Garber is clear that although these texts end at the death of the protagonist, they are not autobiographies, but are indebted to the hagiographical tradition.

Scholars and students of history, literature and religion will reap the benefits of Garber's solid and ambitious study. An author less familiar with her sources and less skilled in her interpretations might have made a tangled web of these diverse texts. But Garber's lucid style enables her to highlight the uniqueness of each genre and text she explores, even as she admits the fluidity and similarities among them. The result is a clearer, richer view of the complex tapestry of medieval women's spiritual and literary lives.